Events

Europe, Britain, and America

June 28, 2005 // 4:00pm5:30pm

Transcipt of remarks given by Sir Rodric Braithwaite

EUROPE, BRITAIN, AND AMERICA

People always tell you the European Union is in terminal decline: in Washington twenty years ago the word was "eurosclerosis". And yet the Union survived and developed. Now everyone is once more predicting doom: it's deja vu all over again.

Europe – the European Union – does of course face a crisis. So does the relationship between Europe and America. I believe that both crises stem from the same event: the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. I also believe that neither crisis is terminal.

I shall be repeating things which most of you know already know. I apologise for that in advance. But I believe that to understand what is now going on we need to go back to first principles.

THE CRISIS IN THE EUROPEAN UNION

After the French voted against the European constitution few weeks ago the London Economist put that famous picture by David of the murdered Marat in his bath on its front cover. The heading was "The Europe That Died". The Treaty of Rome signed by the Six original members of the European Community had looked forward to "an ever-closer Europe". That Europe, said The Economist with every show of Schadenfreude, was now dead. The idea of Europe as a world power was dead. The idea of a Europe which preserved its coherence by clustering round supranational institutions in Brussels was dead. What was left was Europe as a grand free trade area and a single market, a Europe that would enlarge apparently without limit as a refuge for neighbouring countries seeking to build democracy and a liberal market.

The Economist is sometimes rather frivolous. But The New York Times used similar language on 4 June. "Europe is too important and the world is moving too fast," said the Times, "for the European Union to succumb to a self-indulgent paralysis. ... The European Union represents a powerful incentive for countries to bring their governance and civil rights up to the highest global standards. Succumbing to Turkophobia would be an enormous and potentially dangerous blow to the most modern of Muslim countries."

Such comments seem to me to lack any depth of analysis about what makes the European Union tick. None of the commentators bother to ask themselves why it is that the Union does indeed provide a powerful incentive for countries to improve their governance and civil rights. Can a mere free trade area really provide that kind of a magnet? Is there no risk that an ever-enlarging Union will simply collapse under its own weight, leaving the Europeans, their neighbours, and indeed the United States of America all worse off than they were before? These are matters which The Economist, The New York Times, and their like appear to see no need to address.

The European Union does not fit into any of the categories hitherto known to political science. It is not an international organisation, though it is often described as such. It is wholly different in kind from the United Nations or even NATO. It is far more tightly organized than either, and places far higher entry requirements on potential members than they do. Neither the United Nations nor NATO, after all, has a system of law which applies directly to the domestic affairs of its citizens. Neither has delegated the power to negotiate trade deals to an supranational commission. Neither presumes to regulate the price of pig meat and the degree of noise emitted by lawnmowers in its member states.

The European Union is, however, certainly not a federation in any meaningful sense of the word. The Founding Fathers did, perhaps, believe that they were laying the groundwork for an eventual United States of Europe on the model of the USA. But the Thirteen colonies shared a single language, and a single political and legal tradition. The European countries, with their differing and often conflicting cultures, history and languages, started from somewhere quite different. A real federation, even of Six, was never a practical prospect. With each successive enlargement the prospect has receded still further.

But the European Union is also emphatically NOT a mere free trade zone. That is what some British would like it to become. But that, too, is not going to happen.

What the European Union is

If we are to take the measure of the current crisis, we need to remind ourselves of what the Union IS.

The European Union was in its origin an intensely political organisation, and it is so today. It was founded in 1955 with a clear political objective: to stop another generation of Europeans from killing one another.

One reason why the new European Union worked was because its members were under threat. They were under threat from their own past. And they were under threat from the Soviet Union. Hitler and Stalin were the godparents of the European Union. As long as the memory of the war lasted, as long as the threat from the East continued, the Europeans were able to overcome their disagreements in the pursuit of a common good.

The external threat was a necessary but not a sufficient guarantee of success. Traditional international organisations have always been destroyed by the ungovernable egoism of their member states. The Union's founding fathers were a cynical bunch of men. Like those who drafted the US Constitution, they knew that power corrupts unless strong institutions are set in place to control it. The Treaty of Rome which they devised was based on a combination of Montesquieu and Marx. From Montesquieu they learned that the best political system was one based on the separation of powers devised by the English. From Marx they learned that if you don't get the economic infrastructure right the political superstructure will go wrong.

They knew that the Union would degenerate unless there were a relatively independent body to act as the initiator of policy and to some extent as the arbitrator of its execution. They therefore invented the European Commission, a somewhat supranational body staffed by civil servants supposed to be loyal to the Union rather than their country of origin.

They also devised a common system of law to govern the Union's common activities, and a European Court to interpret and enforce the law. Since the law has domestic force, and is applied by national courts and national officials, it has to be written in the language of each member state. There can be no question of conducting the Union's business in a few official languages, as happens in NATO or the United Nations – something that few outsiders understand.

Without these central bodies, and this common body of law, the Union's common activities would break down. That goes for matters to which even the sceptical British attach importance, such as the single market, competition policy, and the mechanisms by which the European Union carries its weight in international negotiations on trade matters.

Because the Union deals in matters which closely affect the livelihoods of individuals and whole industries in member states, the Europeans, their representatives in Brussels, and the Brussels bureaucracy do not spend much of their time thinking about grandiose matters – peace, democracy, justice, or the war against terrorism. They worry about burgeoning budgets and the cost to their domestic taxpayer. They think about the best way of promoting the material interests of their clients, preferably in cooperation with their partners, but if necessary at their expense. They worry, in fact, about matters which in nation states are the stuff of domestic politics.

It is this extension of domestic politics which constitutes the essence of the Union. That is what new members sign up to, and it is what shapes their domestic politics in turn. Without that shaping, the democracy and prosperity so praised by The Economist and the New York Times as the object of enlargement are unlikely to come about.

To the outsider what goes on in Brussels looks like an unedifying bazaar. In fact the rows and the horsetrading in Brussels are a sign of the reality of the Union's political life and a measure of its political success. Nobody in NATO ever has rows like that. And if any outside critic could tell me in what ways everyday politics in Washington is more high-minded than everyday politics in Brussels, I should be glad to hear from them.

The elements of the present crisis: The "Democratic Deficit"

But the Union is indeed in crisis, and for three reasons. None of the elements in the crisis is new. They could have been tackled at any time in the past decade or so. But the political will was not there.

First, there is the "Democratic Deficit" the sense among ordinary voters that they do not have enough control over the decisions taken in Brussels. Even in the founder member states ordinary people are tired of being treated as passive onlookers in a European enterprise run by an arrogant elite who believe that they alone know what the future of Europe requires, and that the issues are too complex to put to ordinary people who might come up with inconvenient answers. That is the main message from the "No" votes in France and Holland.

Ordinary people were more or less willing to accept the views of the elite as long as their main concern was to put the divisions of the war in Europe behind them, to hold together against the Soviet threat, and to construct a civilised basis for political and economic collaboration between them.

But the memory of the war has receded into the past. The Soviet threat has gone. It was probably the construction of the Eurozone that tipped the balance. One's national currency is a powerful symbol of nationhood. Ordinary people in Europe were not asked what they thought about the change, and they resented it.

Europe's leaders now need to listen to their voters, even when the voters say things they would rather not hear. They need to devise measures to close the democratic deficit. Of course they mouth the rhetoric. They have suggested measures such as giving national parliaments a greater role in EU legislation, opening ministerial meetings to the public, and allowing citizens to petition the European Commission. These look like palliatives. If they or something like them do not work, the Union will be in serious trouble.

Enlargement

The second clear message from the referendums in France and Holland is that enlargement has become the bone that sticks in the European popular gullet.

While the Cold War lasted, the number of potential new members was clearly defined and clearly limited. But when the countries of Eastern Europe became free to choose, the Union could hardly rebuff them. In little more than ten years the Union nearly doubled in size. It is a big mouthful, and the institution needs time to digest it.

Many ordinary people believe that further enlargement carries concrete risks for their jobs, their welfare services, and their national cultures. They pay taxes to the Union. They wonder why they should pay ever larger sums to promote democracy in ever more distant countries. Those who blame the European taxpayer for being selfish expect a virtue that they would be unlikely to show themselves.

This is where Turkey comes in. If or when Turkey joins the Union, it will soon become the largest member state. It will bring with it a very large number of poor peasants. Either these would be subsidised according to the existing rules, and therefore a major budgetary burden. Or Turkey would be given a special and less favoured status than other member states, which the Turks would doubtless resent. Or the mechanisms of the Union would have to be watered down, perhaps to the point that they became meaningless. None of those outcomes is at all attractive.

Some commentators assume, rather insultingly, that popular opposition to enlargement is merely an expression of European racism. The European taxpayer does not however see why he – rather than, say, the American taxpayer - has a particular duty to "the most modern of Muslim countries," nor why his doubts on the subject should be called "Turkophobia".

Meanwhile The Economist talks gaily about expanding the Union to include Ukraine, and eventually Russia and – on one occasion, not repeated – even China.

People who talk like that are either uninterested in the arithmetic, or uninterested the future viability of the Union. Some, perhaps, in Britain or America are interested in pushing the process to the point where the Union collapses. That is a deeply irresponsible posture.

The failure of Europe's leaders to work out, and then to explain to their people, how their worries over enlargement can be met is perhaps understandable. It is almost, but not quite, excusable. Nobody knows where to draw the boundary of enlargement without profoundly upsetting nations which lie beyond the boundary. Nobody wants to grasp the nettle.

Europe's leaders are paying for that pusillanimity.

The Economic Debate

After these fundamental issues of democracy and enlargement, it is almost a relief to turn to mundane matters of economic and budgetary management.

Stephen Pearlstein in last Wednesday's Washington Post told us that the British and the Americans are committed to a full-blown liberal capitalism, which "generates growth through a messy and disruptive process of shifting jobs and capital from existing companies and jobs to more productive ones." By contrast, he says, the French and the Germans dread all this, and prefer their "comfortable old socialist nostrums."

This is a line superficially shared by the British government. But it is too simple by far.

The tradition of social democracy in Europe dates from the French Revolution at least. It is as strong in Britain as it is on the Continent, though it expresses itself in different ways. Mrs Thatcher started out to roll back the British welfare state. She soon discovered that was politically impossible, and had to backtrack very quickly. Tony Blair would not dream of making the mistake she did.

This is not an issue of principle. Blair recently spoke to the European Parliament as he assumed the rotating Presidency of the Union. The speech is worth reading in full. He emphasizes that "The issue is not between a "free market" Europe and a social Europe, between those who want to retreat to a common market and those who believe in Europe as a political project."

The issue is an issue of practice. For reasons of demography and technology the financial burden of providing social services and pensions is becoming greater and greater, in Britain, on the continent of Europe, and indeed in America. So the question is: how do you reform the welfare state so that it remains viable in the 21st century?

Here the Europeans have a good deal to learn from one another: the French health service, for example, is better run and financed than the British health service. But unemployment in France and Germany is far higher than it is in Britain. The German and French economies certainly need deregulation and reform. German and French politicians will eventually have to find ways round the massive domestic resistance to change, as the British did in the 1970s and 1980s. But they will not give up what Mr Pearlstein calls their nostrums, any more than the British have done.

The Budget Debate

The newspapers are currently particularly full of the row over the Union's budget and particularly over the British budget rebate. I can go into the details in question time. Here it is sufficient to say that this is a Mexican standoff which will eventually be resolved. It should not be taken tragically. Budget rows are the stuff of politics everywhere, and the Union is no exception. This is certainly not the worst problem the Union currently faces.

THE CRISIS IN THE TRANSATLANTIC RELATIONSHIP

I now turn to the crisis in the transatlantic relationship. Here again the seminal event was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The relationship between Europe and America during the Cold War was more balanced than most people perceived. The Europeans knew that American support was essential if they were to resist Soviet pressure. The Americans knew that if Western Europe fell under Soviet influence, it would be a huge defeat for American political, military, commercial and economic interests. The two sides of the Atlantic were not allied because they loved one another. They were allied because they both had a vital stake in the relationship. Disagreements between Europe and America always melted in the need to preserve solidarity in the face of the Soviet enemy.

That glue has disappeared. The Europeans no longer depend on America for their security. For the foreseeable future, Europe has the capacity to manage its own security problems, even if the shameful response to the wars in the Balkans showed that they did not then have the will. The pressure is on for them to develop that capacity in the next few decades.

At least for the Western Europeans, America is no longer the indispensable nation. Nor is America any longer the model nation. Most Europeans respect and admire the American way of life, and the values that go with it. But they believe that their own way of life and their own institutions embody the same values, and do so at least as effectively. The sentiment has been reinforced by the Iraq War and its aftermath.

That goes for the British too. It is highly unlikely that another British government will unquestioningly follow America into a war, as the Blair government did in 2003. The so-called "Special Relationship" that Britain has with America is something else I can expand on during questions.

Successive American governments supported the unification of Europe, in the belief that a united Europe would share the burden of international responsibility almost without question. That has always seemed a mistaken judgement. A strong and united Europe will inevitably pursue its own interests, even when these come into conflict with American interests, in ways which America finds uncomfortable. A more united Europe can be a partner, but it cannot be a vassal. There are already signs that American enthusiasm for European integration is diminishing accordingly.

But when the Americans and the Europeans look around the rest of the world, they cannot discover any other country or group of countries with which they have half as much in common. They are increasingly locked together economically. America and Europe invest more with one another and trade more with one another than any other two continents. They negotiate as equals on trade matters. American companies find themselves submitting to European anti-trust rulings and adopting European technical standards in order to sell their goods to the lucrative European market. And the fact that they do indeed share common values is not in the least trivial.

And in the new world of international terrorism America needs the cooperation of European intelligence agencies and European police forces as much as Europe needs the cooperation of American intelligence agencies and American police forces. The Americans still have overwhelming military force. But the Europeans are not clear that overwhelming military force is very much use in a complex and fractured world.

The Iraq war and the months which followed were accompanied by a disgraceful storm of mutually contemptuous abuse across the Atlantic. Since then the President of the United States has found it politic to travel to Paris so that he and the President of the French Republic could say how much they loved one another. The sight may have had its comic aspects. But it was also a return to a necessary common sense.

Prognosis

I do not much like foretelling the future. But I am prepared to risk the following:
· The existing members of the European Union have too great a political stake in its wellbeing to allow their quarrels to get out of hand. Even the British would be appalled if the Union disintegrated.
· Ordinary people will have to be given a much more substantial stake in the workings of the Union, but no one quite knows how to do that.
· The issue of enlargement is out of the closet. That does not mean the Union will not enlarge. But people will now insist on knowing how the potential damage to the Union and to their own interests can be prevented.
· The Atlantic relationship will remain uniquely important to both America and Europe. It will be somewhat looser and somewhat more equal than it was during the Cold War. But it is still solidly based in mutual interest. Here too, none of those involved can allow it to disintegrate.

None of that seems to me to be a ground for pessimism.
 

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